RACING’S THE LAST GOLDEN ERA: THE 1980s
PJanuary 30, 2013
What do you remember about the 1980s? What things does that decade make you think of? Were you even born then?! To some people, the decade recalls a new wave of questionable music, terrible fashion crimes, big hair, the rise of MTV and soap operas like Dallas. More seriously there were nuclear meltdowns, ill-thought out invasions aplenty and general international unrest.
For the automotive world, the ’80s would also prove to be a time of seismic change. By its very nature, racing is always about being on the cutting edge: advantage is gained through breakthroughs in technology being applied to their maximum. Disk brakes, monocoques, aerodynamics, engine management, engine efficiency – they were all part of a racing arms race that had been going on for generations. But the 1980s brought together all these things at their respective pinnacles, at a time when computing power was still in its infant stage and rule-makers’ brains seem to have been given a week off. Things would seem like they’d ben turned upside down…
The 1980s became a decade of violent evolution in racing: the graphs charting development went vertical as almost military levels of effort were put into factory racing programmes. Never before or since have we seen such a variety of machinery across the highest levels of motorsport or the sheer quantity of manufacturer involvement combined with (because of?) such lax rules.
Huge budgets were thrown at racing. The marketing people were giddy with joy as their racing departments came up with more and more outlandish speed machines with which to take on the world. A company like Peugeot could take on Porsche on the same terms. Time was smashed apart. Lap and stage times dropped like stones, with these new cars slicing double-digit percentages out of track records.
What emerged were pure kinetic sculptures, making the 1980s a period which we can look back on as a veritable art gallery of the most beautiful, perfect, effective racing cars ever made.
But this wasn’t something that was clearly signposted: the energy crises of the ’70s had taken their toll on the traditional homelands of the car: petrol prices had skyrocketed, meaning that people just couldn’t afford to run big, gas-guzzling cars. At the beginning of the new decade Japan had become the number one global car manufacturer, overtaking the US.
In fact, an explosion in Japanese small and mid-size car imports accounted for one in four vehicles sold in the USA: a new high that triggered a restriction in 1981 on the number of imports allowed into the States, and something that led directly to the development of sportier models and the luxury, higher profit brands such as Lexus, Infiniti and Acura over the following years.
Across the Atlantic the British automotive industry was in a downhill spiral, sabotaged by quality issues and workplace unrest; many European car makers were also struggling, with only the emerging German auto industry showing signs of expansion, joining Japan as a rising force.
Then something happened: a combination of improved economic factors and a significant change in thinking that turned around what had seemed to be a stagnating industry. A decade that had looked like being as miserable as the ’70s on a number of levels evolved into a glory period of racing purity that was the breeding ground for so much of what we now take for granted in automotive culture.
For a start there was a glut of technological innovation: fuel injection, electronic ignition and engine management systems were allied to much improved disc brakes and materials, and front wheel drive emerged as the standard configuration. The petrol crisis had also ended: the massive spike in prices at the end of the ’70s was followed by a dramatic market crash and a flood of cheap petrol arrived in the first half of the 1980s. By this time car manufacturers had already been forced to direct R&D at fuel economy more than just trim levels and power, which meant that new cars were introduced that were small, fast and frugal. So what could you do with that?
The combination of globalisation, technology, available gas and a public reinvigorated about a new breed of car saw companies starting to look forward and be positive once again. Hot hatches and superminis turned around ailing fortunes: Peugeot launched the 205 in 1983, followed a year later by the first MPV, the Espace. Conversely, 2CV production ended after 40 years. American companies also bounced back towards the end of the decade, buying up prestige European brands like Aston Martin, Jaguar and Lamborghini.
All this innovation and change led to an even louder revolution on the racetrack. Like most things in the ’80s, it did still involve some moustaches, but it also produced some of the most iconic, impressive machinery ever to be raced. Many of the cars you know and love can trace their roots back to this period, whether through the lineage of specific models, the concept of the road-going homologation special, the materials they’re built from or an iconic livery they reference.
Mechanical engineering expertise had to be backed up by one thing: the man behind the wheel. Computers and advanced electronics were still a while away. The ’80s pitted the most ferocious racing cars against some of the most uncompromising drivers ever in a one-on-one battle. The drivers became heroes, household names to this day. Prost. Senna. Mansell. Earnhardt. Bell. Ickx. Ludwig. Rahal. Brock. Röhrl. Kankkunen.
That these drivers made it through the ’80s at all is testament to their skill rather than the safety of the cars they drove. The initiatives pushed through in Formula 1 had begun to trickle down to the other international championships – but not before a short but important interlude that allowed so much of what we’ll talk about here to happen. It all started in 1982 with three simple letters: A, B and C.
Group A. Group B. Group C. Three sets of FIA regulations covering mass-production four-door saloons, two-seater sportscars and prototype racers. Three letters for three series that became dictionary definitions for racing perfection in a way that only Formula 1 had previously achieved.
We’ll start in reverse. At the beginning of the 1980s, sportscar racing and its blue riband event, the Le Mans 24 Hours, were in a perilous state. Hotchpotch classes were cobbled together to maintain grid numbers, and just a handful of manufacturers officially entered the 1980 race. But by the end of the decade Porsche, Aston Martin, Toyota, BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Jaguar, Mazda, Lancia and Peugeot had all been involved. Instead of one or two cars in with a realistic chance of winning, by the late ’80s anything up to half the grid were in with a shot. More manufacturers were in sportscars than F1 – and fan and sponsor numbers were going in the same direction.
Factories had been split by the FIA Group 5/6 schism at the end of the ’70s: did they go silhouette saloon or open-top all-out prototype? On top of that, with fuel regulations unlimited in late ’70s racing, manufacturers just cranked up the boost and watched that precious gas – and their privateer rivals – just disappear: it didn’t make for great racing and was hardly the way to get the media or public on board in view of the prevailing climate. Over in the USA, the IMSA organising body was achieving bigger grids, having decided to deliberately promote restricted two-seater prototypes over road-based cars – more on that later – which proved to the FIA that there was an alternative route.
The new FIA Group C rules for 1982 took, like all the best ideas, a simple approach: use anything you want as far as engine goes, but we’ll only give you a controlled amount of fuel to last the race. Tanks were limited to 100 litres, and only five fuel stops were allowed during a standard 1,000km race. Large normally aspirated or a small turbocharged unit? It was up to you. With these limited restrictions, car designers looked up from their drawing boards with surprise, pinched themselves – and then unleashed everything they had in their arsenal. Naturally, Porsche were quickest off the mark.
Ground effect had arrived in F1 during the previous decade and radically changed how racing cars performed – this would now be applied to sportscars. The cars became more and more slippery in shape, whilst power increased exponentially.
Drag was better understood and incrementally reduced, meaning that by the end of the decade top speeds for the prototypes were up to the 240mph mark, with the WM-Peugeot of 1988 even reaching 252mph on the Hunaudières straight leading to Mulsanne, making it the fastest racing car ever. That meant that when there were crashes, they always spectacular and potentially fatal. In 1985 alone both Manfred Winkelhock and F1-champion-of-the-future Stefan Bellof were killed.
The classic 1000km races of the ’80s are now the stuff of legend: factory Rothmans-liveried Porsche 956s against Martini Lancia LC2s; Porsche versus Jaguar; Jaguar versus Mercedes; all with the legions of privateer 962s and specialist C1 and C2s around them that were unleashed as the decade progressed. Le Mans once again became the focus of the world’s press every June: hundreds of thousands of spectators flocked there and the manufacturers invested cubic dollars to get their cars to the fore.
Group C was everywhere: rules were adopted by national bodies as well, hammering the cars into the public’s consciousness. Thundersports in the UK used the baby C2 rules; Europe’s Interserie, Supercup in the Germany and the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship all used full C1s. Group C itself morphed into an even higher plateau come the ’90s when the cars were barely disguised Formula 1 cars, but this proved a development too far: costs spiralled even further out of control and Group C was finally killed off once and for all after struggling through the 1992 season.
Its legacy lived on though: a Dauer 962 disguised as a GT1 car won the 1994 Le Mans 24 Hours – much to the embarrassment of the organisers – and the open-top TWR Porsche WSC95 that won in 1996 and ’97 could trace its roots back to the Jaguar XJR14. Now, the historic Group C Racing series attracts huge grids to some of the classic circuits around the world, allowing you to get a taste of the championship’s heyday. It’s something that every racing fan should experience.
Rewinding, all-wheel drive had been allowed in international rallying rules since 1979, but no one had been able to make it work within the context of the additional weight and complexity. Then Audi came along in 1980 with the turbocharged Quattro and fired the warning shot – everything was about to change. Rear-wheel drive cars continued to win, but they were on borrowed time. 1982 and that set of FIA rules arrived.
Ah. Group B. The mere name makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Rallying has always been exciting – no matter what you may have heard, it still is when you watch it – but Group B was something… special. It’s like the rule makers were a little over tired after working on the myriad other rule sets introduced that year. At least Group C used fuel and weight as controls. Group B was just silly. They seemed to have forgotten about the inexorable landslide of technology on the horizon, and just left everything pretty open. Materials? Martian space metal is okay with us. Weight? Yes. It should weigh something. Boost? Oh! Yes. Whatever you fancy.
The numbers required to satisfy homologation regs were also smaller, just 200, allowing the manufacturers the chance to take liberties with production of the necessary run. You need to see the 200 we’ve made? We’ve, uh, lost them. The dog ate them. Another barking mad loophole was the Evo concept. Build just 20 new street cars each year and you had the excuse to further up-gun your competition car. So the manufacturers turned it on its head, built 20 crazy cars and then continued to make excuses about where the 200 original cars that should have been built actually were.
Manufacturers quickly woke up to the potential of the new series. They could take any model they fancied from their range, no matter how small or ungainly, and make it into a Death Star. The public would love it, surely.
Everything from Ferrari 308s and Porsche 911s took on Fords, Toyotas, Nissans, Lancias and the new breed of superminis: the Renault 5 and Peugeot’s 205 were giant-killers in Group B form, the perfect platform to show off the more evil side of these supermarket shoppers.
The Evo rules meant that the production-derived cars were quickly discarded: the final iterations of Group B machinery were pure-bred racing cars using high tech materials and explosively potent powerplants, double the horsepower of the previous regulations. It made for phenomenal spectating as the rocketship cars cut through stages – track down the amazing Madness On Wheels: Rallying’s Craziest Years documentary for some stunning footage and interviews with legendary Group B drivers. But with the cars utterly on the edge and rally stages lined with fans standing 10-deep, potential disaster was always just around the corner.
Horrific accidents in Corsica and Portugal in 1986, in which several crews and three spectators had died, along with another 31 fans injured, led to the manufacturers pulling out en masse and the rug being pulled from under Group B. The cars were banned for 1987, and the proposed Group S rules (Group B innovation but with limited power) shelved. Rallycross was the only beneficiary, as these potent cars were hoovered up by the emerging sport and put to good use around the more controlled environments of European rallycross circuits.
The final part of this trinity was Group A, which was aimed at mass-market four-seat models and covered the touring car end of the racing spectrum. Homologation rules aimed to control the models used, with 5,000 road-legal cars required for every racing variant and the emphasis on stock panels and parts.
But just like Groups B and C, once the manufacturers got hold of these new regs they exploited them to the max: race-prepped versions of otherwise tame hatchbacks were made available to the public in order to satisfy the rule-makers, making the traditional sportscar companies up their game even further.
The by-product was some of the most insane road cars ever, made by manufacturers just so they could tick the homologation box and throw ever-more powerful cars at the track. The BMW 635CSi, Ford Sierra RS500, Nissan Skyline GT-R, Mercedes 190, Rover SD1 – the 1980s brought the word Evo into modern parlance.
Group A was also applied to rally in 1987 in attempt to rein in the excesses of Group B, and although in touring cars it gave way to the fearsome SuperTourers of the’ 90s, the basic rules still form the platform for a large number of road and rally series today.
So what about single-seaters? Like with sportscars, Formula 1 had hardly got off to a kicking start at the start of the ’80s. Three races were boycotted in 1980 due to safety concerns and the ongoing guerrilla war between organisers FISA and the teams’ association FOCA. F1 was still incredibly dangerous: Patrick Depailler was killed, Regazzoni paralysed and Jabouille broke both legs in ’80; Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti were both killed in ’82 and Didier Pironi badly injured. But ’82 was at least the final year of a terrible F1 legacy: that of at least one driver dying every championship year…
As with the other FIA series, 1982 proved to be a pivotal year: active suspension was allowed 1982, along with semi-automatic gearboxes and traction control. The DFV-dominated era was swept away with the introduction of turbos: Renault, Ferrari and Toleman proved the concept, and turbos were soon in the ascendancy.
The NA engines, producing around 600hp at their peak, were about to be made redundant: all the major teams had switched to small-capacity turbos by late ’83 and they were universal by ’85.
With unlimited horsepower, cars became qualifying beasts. The BMW M12 1.5-litre turbo used by Brabham, Arrows and Benetton in ’86 produced over 1,300hp in qualifying trim – sure, it would grenade after three laps, but it made for three glorious laps.
Even when turbo limits were imposed in ’87, cars still regularly produced 1,100hp in race trim through rapid advances in engine development, aerodynamics, tyres and suspension negating the four-bar boost limit. Carbon-fibre and composites and other exotic materials formed the cars, and a new generation of drivers emerged: Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet.
The FIA was fought a constant, losing battle against innovation: ground-effect aero was banned in 1983; severe fuel limits imposed in ’86; sticky quallie tyres banned in ’87; turbos restricted in ’88 and finally banned in ’89; though it wasn’t until ’89 that drivers feet were mandated to be behind the front axle line…
But other avenues would open up and the cars just got faster until the last hurrah for turbos in ’88 – and then the high tech McLaren MP4/5 proved just as dominating. From now on, it would be the electronics on the car that would dominate the headlines: the days of the heroic driver taming over-powered beast were over.
Alongside the global stage, the ’80s also saw huge transition in the US. GT and road-derived saloons ruled over in IMSA until 1981, when the new GTP class was introduced: two seater, enclosed prototypes with any engine you fancy. It sounds the same as what would appear with Group C, but the main difference in rules was that IMSA went from the outset for balanced competition with the emphasis on preventing factory domination, whereas the FIA had pursued a formula based around fuel efficiency – the price of gas in Europe was still a sticky subject at the time.
British privateers March and Lola supplied the initial chassis and cleaned up for the first couple of years, with the BMW factory team putting their engine into a March to make the fearsome-looking M1C. The Porsche 935 Group 5 car was still strong in numbers and performance to start with: rules-balancing kept it in the game, taking into account their power but older, non-ground effect aero.
Group 44 Jaguar dipped their toe in the water in ’83 with the XJR5 (before also heading across the ocean to Le Mans) and Chevrolet joined in ’85 with a Lola chassis.
Ford also joined the fray with their Mustang GTP. But the Porsche 956 that was all-conquering in Europe wasn’t allowed to play. Its big twin-turbo power and the driver’s feet being well in front of the front axle centreline didn’t go down well with IMSA, so Porsche came up with the longer wheelbase, single-turbo 962 for ’85.
And the opposition did gnash their teeth.
The 962 won the championship in ’85, then again in ’86 and again in ’87. In 1987 962s were first to sixth, a pair of Jaguars and the Hendrick Chevy next – and then another five 962s.
But for ’88 everything changed again. Nissan arrived with the Lola-derived GTP ZX-T and took over from Porsche, blitzing the next four years of the championship. By 1989, powered by the the turbocharged VG30ET V6 from the Nissan 300ZX and with several years of refinement, the ZX-T reached peak downforce levels of 8,000lbs with a lift to drag ratio of 4.75:1.
As with Group C, IMSA continued on into the early ’90s, now with Toyota and their mighty Eagle crushing all – before moving into the new open-top era with the introduction of the Ferrari 333SP.
It was a familiar story in NASCAR: a tumultuous 1970s followed by a revolutionary upturn for the sport and the emergence of a new breed of charismatic legends: Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip and Dale ‘The Intimidator’ Earnhardt stepping up to replace the old guard such as Richard Petty and David Pearson. The cars’ template was made slightly smaller in 1981 to reflect the popularity of mid-size cars on the street, and spoilers later added to counter twitchiness at high speed – and those speeds just kept getting higher.
The cars that weren’t called stock for nothing: they still looked like they had been driven off a forecourt, been stripped down and sent out. Advertising was becoming increasingly important, and live TV meant that NASCAR would be beamed into every household. The modern monster that is NASCAR was zapped into life in the ’80s.
Rulemakers were locked in a constant battle with the teams, as every avenue was tried to get an advantage, from fuel and engine specs to underbody modifications. The resulting controversy only added to the series’ popularity with the fans.
The 1987 season is still regarded as one of the most spectacular ever, particularly for the battles between Elliott, Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine. The cars were hitting record speeds as well, with Elliott raising the marker to 212.809mph during qualifying for the Winston 500 at Talladega.
Restrictor plates were introduced for the races on Superspeedways in 1988 to try and split up the pack racing, and the cars began to ebb towards the modern identi-silhouette shape, losing the boxy-but-charismatic style that had given NASCAR so much individuality. It’s only now that the cars are beginning to regain some of the looks of forecourt models.
It was the same story in drag racing: the era of the modified production model was drawing to an end, and bespoke-built cars would dominate across all categories, often taking the sports away from their original fanbase – and starting the inexorable downhill slide in popularity of so many forms of automotive competition.
So there are more than enough reasons why the 1980s are worth taking a closer look at – and an explanation as to just why the decade is held up as iconic on so many levels. There is also so much more to examine, though that does mean we have a great excuse to run plenty more retrospectives in the future.
For the moment, we hope you’ll enjoy our 1980s theme that kicks off today. We’ll be featuring some of the most famous cars of the time (both from the track and the street) showing off plenty of videos and picking out some legendary races. So get growing that moustache – and enjoy!
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